From Partners to Foes: The Changing US-China Relationship and its Implications for Asia
By Iftekhar Bashar
Noted geo-strategist and author Dr Brahma Chellaney delivered the S.T. Lee Distinguished Annual Lecture titled “From Partners to Foes: The Changing US-China Relationship and its Implications for Asia” on 30 October 2018. Dr Chellaney observed a fundamental shift in America’s current China policy, which would have major implications for Asian economies, and it could potentially reshape global geopolitics and trade too.
Dr Chellaney spoke of a broad consensus in Washington in favour of this shift, based on the perception that the US policy of constructive engagement with China has failed and would need to be replaced by active and concrete counteraction. He emphasised that the consensus comes at a time when US politics is more divided than ever.
His prognosis was that the evolving policy change is likely to outlast the Trump presidency because any successor will find it difficult to reverse the policy change and resume trustful cooperation Furthermore, the bipartisan consensus in favour of a shift in China policy is still at a nascent stage and it may even be tenuous. Yet, this broad consensus to redefine America’s China policy could become the Trump administration’s most lasting legacy.
Drawing on the historical trajectory of US-China relations, Dr Chellaney argued that Beijing’s partnership with Washington in the second half of the Cold War helped open the path to China’s rapid economic modernisation.
He said that at the time of the 1969 Sino-Soviet border clashes, the US sought to actively exploit the rift in the communist world so as to align China with its anti-Soviet strategy. Despite China starting the border clashes, the US sided with Mao Zedong’s regime — effectively helping in laying the foundation for what became the “China opening” of 1970-71, which was engineered by US President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s National Security Advisor at the time. Subsequently, the US accomplished its objective of splitting its two main enemies, the Soviet Union and China. With the US winning China over to its side, it became a “two against one” competition that contributed to Soviet imperial overreach. This strategy proved critical in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the US victory in the Cold War.
The US, after co-opting China against the Soviet Union, directly aided China’s economic rise, according to Dr Chellaney. He said successive administrations in the US used policies with a hope to influence China but this has not been effective in bringing about the change that US expected from China. This policy approach turned China into an export giant with vast trade surpluses and foreign exchange reserves, and the leading source of capital flows to the US. China has also emerged as United States’ main geopolitical rival in this time.
The Trump administration has ended that decades-old policy approach. The new policy began crystallising in recent months after the US first labelled China as a “revisionist power” and “strategic competitor”. However, according to Chinese state media, President Donald Trump’s current trade war with China is potentially laying the foundation for a new Cold War.
Dr Chellaney was of the view that shifting US policies are turning China and Russia towards becoming what he saw as unnatural allies. He said these changes will have long-term implications for Asian economies and could reshape global geopolitics and trade. He was also of the view that the US policy of decoupling from China through economic tools, and above all developing an alliance of the willing, is overestimated.
Finally, Dr Chellaney cautioned that the paradigm shift in US policy towards China is still evolving. In this regard, the Trump administration has defined the end objectives but it is still searching for the effective means to achieve those ends, he added.
As US-China relations become rockier, it might become difficult for Asia-Pacific economies to strike a balance in their relations with US and China. Certain US allies such as Australia and South Korea, currently accord their economic relations with China to be as important as their security ties with the US. Such nations will certainly have to make difficult choices should the US enact policies that will force them to choose between the US and China. He said complexities of the global economy and inter-dependence will be difficult to divide today’s world in Cold War-style rival camps.
In conclusion, Dr Chellaney stated that US policies have pushed China and Russia into a greater geopolitical alignment, and this will possibly limit the US policy paradigm shift on China.
Last updated on 23/01/2019